Catholic Diocesan Church of Spanish and Mexican Texas

By: Robert E. Wright, O.M.I.

Type: General Entry

Published: June 1, 1995

In addition to the Franciscan missions in Texas under New Spain and Mexico (see FRANCISCANS and SPANISH MISSIONS), significant development within the same area was conducted by the Hispanic Catholic diocesan church. By "diocesan church" is meant the Catholic communities of a certain territory under the supervision of a bishop. The ordained ministers who are directly bound to a diocese are called diocesan or secular clergy, in distinction to those who belong to religious congregations and are called religious clergy, or, in previous times, regular clergy, from the fact that they live under a regula, or rule. The latter's work usually extends across many dioceses and even nations, and their members are subject, in the first place, to their own congregational leadership.

The history of the church in Texas before 1850 is complicated by the fact that the various sections of its vast current territory belonged to different civil divisions of New Spain and Mexico. Church organization more or less mirrored these divisions, with a great variety of Franciscan provinces and missionary colleges responsible for the different areas of today's Texas. In turn, these areas all eventually came under the supervision of two major diocesan organizations; one of these dioceses later transferred its northern territory to a new frontier diocese. Far West Texas, the stretch of the Rio Grande from the Big Bend up through the El Paso valley, was claimed by the northwestern diocese of Durango soon after the first foundations in the area in the later 1600s. But that claim was generally successfully contested up into the early 1800s by the Franciscans of the Holy Gospel Province. In contrast, the jurisdiction of the huge Guadalajara diocese was recognized almost immediately by all the Franciscan-staffed settlements permanently established in the early 1700s between San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande (near the site of present-day Eagle Pass) and the Louisiana border. The lower Rio Grande towns were part of major new colonization along the Gulf of Mexico around 1750. The new colony raised the question of establishing a separate diocese for the whole northeastern frontier, including the province of Texas and San Juan Bautista. Apparently none of the lower Rio Grande settlements except Laredo, the only town at that time staffed by a diocesan priest rather than a Franciscan, recognized any diocesan jurisdiction until just before the new diocese of Linares or Nuevo León was finally instituted in 1779. This new diocese was headquartered in Monterrey by the early 1780s.

From the first years of Hispanic foundations, the diocesan church began to develop not only through the missionary work specifically designed to incorporate the indigenous nations into the church, but also through the implantation and growth of local Hispanic Catholic communities. Where the Franciscans were the only clergy in a certain area, they served both the indigenous nations and the Hispanic military and civilians. But in Texas, decades before any other region of the Southwest (even the much older New Mexico province), the Franciscans were also joined by diocesan pastors in a slow but progressive fashion, to a much greater extent than has heretofore been recognized. Between 1731 and 1776 San Antonio, Laredo, San Juan Bautista, and La Bahía received secular pastors or chaplains.

The people of San Juan Bautista and the other settlements on what is now the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, from Matamoros all the way up to the original El Paso (now Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua), spread to the Texas side decades before it became a part of Texas. The original settlements, including those downriver from El Paso that ended up on the Texas side due to changes in the river's course, all eventually received diocesan priests while still under the jurisdiction of the church of New Spain or Mexico. In the first decade of the 1800s the American acquisition of Louisiana led to a military and civilian buildup by New Spain in East Texas, with a concomitant increase in clergy for the new settlements and military chaplaincies. By 1808 there were at least seven Franciscan and five diocesan priests in Texas above the Nueces, and more than six Franciscan and seven diocesan clergy along the Rio Grande.

It is to these local parishes and their substantially Hispanic populations, whether staffed by diocesan clergy or Franciscans, that the strong Hispanic Catholic heritage in Texas must be credited. The people's faith was expressed in mandated public worship and sacramental participation, solemn public processions, special confraternities, home devotions, religious art, songs, gestures, and prayers. The growing maturity of several of these local Hispanic church communities by the last decades of the 1700s was further indicated by the fact that they began to produce native Hispanic clergy, who were serving on the northern frontier of New Spain by 1800. San Antonio, Reynosa, and Revilla (the latter two towns situated on the lower Rio Grande) each saw several native sons ordained before 1810. In fact, for all but four years between 1804 and 1840 San Antonio had one or another native son as pastor.

This flourishing diocesan church was dealt a heavy blow by a period of internal strife and border wars that began with the 1810 insurgencies (see MEXICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE) and was especially destructive along the lower Rio Grande and in Texas above the Nueces. Above that river, church buildings were damaged, local economies were devastated, and even entire towns were temporarily abandoned. Everywhere, certain clergy and their parishioners paid dearly for their sympathy with the insurgent cause or their loyalty to the Mexican nation between 1836 and 1846. During these troubled times, a greater incidence of moral weakening began to manifest itself among some of the diocesan clergy, but there were at least as many others who gave good personal witness and even performed heroically. The only brief respite enjoyed by most of the settlements was in the 1820s. El Paso, on the other hand, which had become the most populous and prosperous settlement in New Mexico and benefited further by the opening of trade with St. Louis under independent Mexico, avoided these conflicts until 1846.

The northern frontier dioceses, aided by the Franciscans, managed to maintain almost continuous ministry in all the principally Catholic settlements throughout the wide expanse of what is now Texas. But the Texas Revolution in 1835–36 shattered the fragile organization that the Mexico diocesan church had struggled to maintain in Texas above the Nueces. All of the mainly Catholic towns west of the Colorado River except San Antonio were evacuated. Their churches were damaged in the battles and then pillaged and vandalized. The clergy was decimated: one died a natural death, another violently, a third was led off as a prisoner of war, and two others were forced into exile.

Above the Nueces in Texas, that left only the pastor of San Antonio, which was the only mainly Catholic settlement still functioning in the new Republic of Texas during its initial years. Eventually the captive pastor of the desolate Goliad found his way to the San Antonio vicinity but apparently refrained from active pastoral work. In 1840 representatives of the United States-related Catholic Church established jurisdiction for the Republic of Texas (see CATHOLIC CHURCH); the two old priests were accused of scandalous conduct by their political enemies in the pro-Anglo party and were summarily dismissed.

However, the settlements along what became the Texas side of the Rio Grande after its conquest by United States troops in 1846 continued to receive almost continuous pastoral care from the Mexican church, both before and after the United States occupation, until the United States church gradually took over the border areas. This takeover occurred anywhere from a few years to several decades after the conquest. It occurred as late as 1892 in the Presidio area of far west Texas.

Eleanor B. Adams, ed., Bishop Tamarón's Visitation of New Mexico, 1760 (Albuquerque: Historical Society of New Mexico, 1954). Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of the North Mexican States and Texas (2 vols., San Francisco: History Company, 1886, 1889). Herbert Eugene Bolton, Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century: Studies in Spanish Colonial History and Administration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1915; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–1958; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). "Diocese," Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5 (New York: Appleton, 1967). Mary Angela Fitzmorris, Four Decades of Catholicism in Texas, 1820–1860 (Ph.D. dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1926). Peter Gerhard, North Frontier of New Spain (Princeton University Press, 1982). Myra Ellen Jenkins, "History and Administration of the Tigua Indians of Ysleta del Sur during the Spanish Colonial Period," in Apache Indians, Vol. 3, by Rex E. Gerald et al. (New York: Garland, 1974). P. Otto Maas, ed., Viajes de Misioneros Franciscanos a la conquista del Nuevo México (Seville: Imprenta de San Antonio, 1915). Aureliano Tapia Méndez, "La creación del primitivo Obispado de Linares," Humanitas 20 (1979). William Stuart Red, The Texas Colonists and Religion, 1821–1836 (Austin: Shettles, 1924). David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982).
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Religion
  • Catholic
Time Periods:
  • Mexican Texas
  • Spanish Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert E. Wright, O.M.I., “Catholic Diocesan Church of Spanish and Mexican Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995

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